Developmental Biology (I)

On goodreads I called the book “[a]n excellent introduction to the field of developmental biology” and I gave it five stars.

Below I have included some sample observations from the first third of the book or so, as well as some supplementary links.

“The major processes involved in development are: pattern formation; morphogenesis or change in form; cell differentiation by which different types of cell develop; and growth. These processes involve cell activities, which are determined by the proteins present in the cells. Genes control cell behaviour by controlling where and when proteins are synthesized, and cell behaviour provides the link between gene action and developmental processes. What a cell does is determined very largely by the proteins it contains. The hemoglobin in red blood cells enables them to transport oxygen; the cells lining the vertebrate gut secrete specialized digestive enzymes. These activities require specialized proteins […] In development we are concerned primarily with those proteins that make cells different from one another and make them carry out the activities required for development of the embryo. Developmental genes typically code for proteins involved in the regulation of cell behaviour. […] An intriguing question is how many genes out of the total genome are developmental genes – that is, genes specifically required for embryonic development. This is not easy to estimate. […] Some studies suggest that in an organism with 20,000 genes, about 10% of the genes may be directly involved in development.”

“The fate of a group of cells in the early embryo can be determined by signals from other cells. Few signals actually enter the cells. Most signals are transmitted through the space outside of cells (the extracellular space) in the form of proteins secreted by one cell and detected by another. Cells may interact directly with each other by means of molecules located on their surfaces. In both these cases, the signal is generally received by receptor proteins in the cell membrane and is subsequently relayed through other signalling proteins inside the cell to produce the cellular response, usually by turning genes on or off. This process is known as signal transduction. These pathways can be very complex. […] The complexity of the signal transduction pathway means that it can be altered as the cell develops so the same signal can have a different effect on different cells. How a cell responds to a particular signal depends on its internal state and this state can reflect the cell’s developmental history — cells have good memories. Thus, different cells can respond to the same signal in very different ways. So the same signal can be used again and again in the developing embryo. There are thus rather few signalling proteins.”

“All vertebrates, despite their many outward differences, have a similar basic body plan — the segmented backbone or vertebral column surrounding the spinal cord, with the brain at the head end enclosed in a bony or cartilaginous skull. These prominent structures mark the antero-posterior axis with the head at the anterior end. The vertebrate body also has a distinct dorso-ventral axis running from the back to the belly, with the spinal cord running along the dorsal side and the mouth defining the ventral side. The antero-posterior and dorso-ventral axes together define the left and right sides of the animal. Vertebrates have a general bilateral symmetry around the dorsal midline so that outwardly the right and left sides are mirror images of each other though some internal organs such as the heart and liver are arranged asymmetrically. How these axes are specified in the embryo is a key issue. All vertebrate embryos pass through a broadly similar set of developmental stages and the differences are partly related to how and when the axes are set up, and how the embryo is nourished. […] A quite rare but nevertheless important event before gastrulation in mammalian embryos, including humans, is the splitting of the embryo into two, and identical twins can then develop. This shows the remarkable ability of the early embryo to regulate [in this context, regulation refers to ‘the ability of an embryo to restore normal development even if some portions are removed or rearranged very early in development’ – US] and develop normally when half the normal size […] In mammals, there is no sign of axes or polarity in the fertilized egg or during early development, and it only occurs later by an as yet unknown mechanism.”

“How is left–right established? Vertebrates are bilaterally symmetric about the midline of the body for many structures, such as eyes, ears, and limbs, but most internal organs are asymmetric. In mice and humans, for example, the heart is on the left side, the right lung has more lobes than the left, the stomach and spleen lie towards the left, and the bulk of the liver is towards the right. This handedness of organs is remarkably consistent […] Specification of left and right is fundamentally different from specifying the other axes of the embryo, as left and right have meaning only after the antero-posterior and dorso-ventral axes have been established. If one of these axes were reversed, then so too would be the left–right axis and this is the reason that handedness is reversed when you look in a mirror—your dorsoventral axis is reversed, and so left becomes right and vice versa. The mechanisms by which left–right symmetry is initially broken are still not fully understood, but the subsequent cascade of events that leads to organ asymmetry is better understood. The ‘leftward’ flow of extracellular fluid across the embryonic midline by a population of ciliated cells has been shown to be critical in mouse embryos in inducing asymmetric expression of genes involved in establishing left versus right. The antero-posterior patterning of the mesoderm is most clearly seen in the differences in the somites that form vertebrae: each individual vertebra has well defined anatomical characteristics depending on its location along the axis. Patterning of the skeleton along the body axis is based on the somite cells acquiring a positional value that reflects their position along the axis and so determines their subsequent development. […] It is the Hox genes that define positional identity along the antero-posterior axis […]. The Hox genes are members of the large family of homeobox genes that are involved in many aspects of development and are the most striking example of a widespread conservation of developmental genes in animals. The name homeobox comes from their ability to bring about a homeotic transformation, converting one region into another. Most vertebrates have clusters of Hox genes on four different chromosomes. A very special feature of Hox gene expression in both insects and vertebrates is that the genes in the clusters are expressed in the developing embryo in a temporal and spatial order that reflects their order on the chromosome. Genes at one end of the cluster are expressed in the head region, while those at the other end are expressed in the tail region. This is a unique feature in development, as it is the only known case where a spatial arrangement of genes on a chromosome corresponds to a spatial pattern in the embryo. The Hox genes provide the somites and adjacent mesoderm with positional values that determine their subsequent development.”

“Many of the genes that control the development of flies are similar to those controlling development in vertebrates, and indeed in many other animals. it seems that once evolution finds a satisfactory way of developing animal bodies, it tends to use the same mechanisms and molecules over and over again with, of course, some important modifications. […] The insect body is bilaterally symmetrical and has two distinct and largely independent axes: the antero-posterior and dorso-ventral axes, which are at right angles to each other. These axes are already partly set up in the fly egg, and become fully established and patterned in the very early embryo. Along the antero-posterior axis the embryo becomes divided into a number of segments, which will become the head, thorax, and abdomen of the larva. A series of evenly spaced grooves forms more or less simultaneously and these demarcate parasegments, which later give rise to the segments of the larva and adult. Of the fourteen larval parasegments, three contribute to mouthparts of the head, three to the thoracic region, and eight to the abdomen. […] Development is initiated by a gradient of the protein Bicoid, along the axis running from anterior to posterior in the egg; this provides the positional information required for further patterning along this axis. Bicoid is a transcription factor and acts as a morphogen—a graded concentration of a molecule that switches on particular genes at different threshold concentrations, thereby initiating a new pattern of gene expression along the axis. Bicoid activates anterior expression of the gene hunchback […]. The hunchback gene is switched on only when Bicoid is present above a certain threshold concentration. The protein of the hunchback gene, in turn, is instrumental in switching on the expression of the other genes, along the antero-posterior axis. […] The dorso-ventral axis is specified by a different set of maternal genes from those that specify the anterior-posterior axis, but by a similar mechanism. […] Once each parasegment is delimited, it behaves as an independent developmental unit, under the control of a particular set of genes. The parasegments are initially similar but each will soon acquire its own unique identity mainly due to Hox genes.”

“Because plant cells have rigid cell walls and, unlike animal cells, cannot move, a plant’s development is very much the result of patterns of oriented cell divisions and increase in cell size. Despite this difference, cell fate in plant development is largely determined by similar means as in animals – by a combination of positional signals and intercellular communication. […] The logic behind the spatial layouts of gene expression that pattern a developing flower is similar to that of Hox gene action in patterning the body axis in animals, but the genes involved are completely different. One general difference between plant and animal development is that most of the development occurs not in the embryo but in the growing plant. Unlike an animal embryo, the mature plant embryo inside a seed is not simply a smaller version of the organism it will become. All the ‘adult’ structures of the plant – shoots, roots, stalks, leaves, and flowers – are produced in the adult plant from localized groups of undifferentiated cells known as meristems. […] Another important difference between plant and animal cells is that a complete, fertile plant can develop from a single differentiated somatic cell and not just from a fertilized egg. This suggests that, unlike the differentiated cells of adult animals, some differentiated cells of the adult plant may retain totipotency and so behave like animal embryonic stem cells. […] The small organic molecule auxin is one of the most important and ubiquitous chemical signals in plant development and plant growth.”

“All animal embryos undergo a dramatic change in shape during their early development. This occurs primarily during gastrulation, the process that transforms a two-dimensional sheet of cells into the complex three-dimensional animal body, and involves extensive rearrangements of cell layers and the directed movement of cells from one location to another. […] Change in form is largely a problem in cell mechanics and requires forces to bring about changes in cell shape and cell migration. Two key cellular properties involved in changes in animal embryonic form are cell contraction and cell adhesiveness. Contraction in one part of a cell can change the cell’s shape. Changes in cell shape are generated by forces produced by the cytoskeleton, an internal protein framework of filaments. Animal cells stick to one another, and to the external support tissue that surrounds them (the extracellular matrix), through interactions involving cell-surface proteins. Changes in the adhesion proteins at the cell surface can therefore determine the strength of cell–cell adhesion and its specificity. These adhesive interactions affect the surface tension at the cell membrane, a property that contributes to the mechanics of the cell behaviour. Cells can also migrate, with contraction again playing a key role. An additional force that operates during morphogenesis, particularly in plants but also in a few aspects of animal embryogenesis, is hydrostatic pressure, which causes cells to expand. In plants there is no cell movement or change in shape, and changes in form are generated by oriented cell division and cell expansion. […] Localized contraction can change the shape of the cells as well as the sheet they are in. For example, folding of a cell sheet—a very common feature in embryonic development—is caused by localized changes in cell shape […]. Contraction on one side of a cell results in it acquiring a wedge-like form; when this occurs among a few cells locally in a sheet, a bend occurs at the site, deforming the sheet.”

“The integrity of tissues in the embryo is maintained by adhesive interactions between cells and between cells and the extracellular matrix; differences in cell adhesiveness also help maintain the boundaries between different tissues and structures. Cells stick to each other by means of cell adhesion molecules, such as cadherins, which are proteins on the cell surface that can bind strongly to proteins on other cell surfaces. About 30 different types of cadherins have been identified in vertebrates. […] Adhesion of a cell to the extracellular matrix, which contains proteins such as collagen, is by the binding of integrins in the cell membrane to these matrix molecules. […] Convergent extension plays a key role in gastrulation of [some] animals and […] morphogenetic processes. It is a mechanism for elongating a sheet of cells in one direction while narrowing its width, and occurs by rearrangement of cells within the sheet, rather than by cell migration or cell division. […] For convergent extension to take place, the axes along which the cells will intercalate and extend must already have been defined. […] Gastrulation in vertebrates involves a much more dramatic and complex rearrangement of tissues than in sea urchins […] But the outcome is the same: the transformation of a two-dimensional sheet of cells into a three-dimensional embryo, with ectoderm, mesoderm, and endoderm in the correct positions for further development of body structure. […] Directed dilation is an important force in plants, and results from an increase in hydrostatic pressure inside a cell. Cell enlargement is a major process in plant growth and morphogenesis, providing up to a fiftyfold increase in the volume of a tissue. The driving force for expansion is the hydrostatic pressure exerted on the cell wall as a result of the entry of water into cell vacuoles by osmosis. Plant-cell expansion involves synthesis and deposition of new cell-wall material, and is an example of directed dilation. The direction of cell growth is determined by the orientation of the cellulose fibrils in the cell wall.”


Developmental biology.
August Weismann. Hans Driesch. Hans Spemann. Hilde Mangold. Spemann-Mangold organizer.
Induction. Cleavage.
Developmental model organisms.
Blastula. Embryo. Ectoderm. Mesoderm. Endoderm.
Xenopus laevis.
DNA. Gene. Protein. Transcription factor. RNA polymerase.
Epiblast. Trophoblast/trophectoderm. Inner cell mass.
Polarity in embryogenesis/animal-vegetal axis.
Primitive streak.
Hensen’s node.
Neural tube. Neural fold. Neural crest cells.
Situs inversus.
Gene silencing. Morpholino.
Drosophila embryogenesis.
Pair-rule gene.
Cell polarity.
Mosaic vs regulative development.
Caenorhabditis elegans.
Fate mapping.
Arabidopsis thaliana.
Apical-basal axis.
Quiescent centre.
Radial cleavage. Spiral cleavage.


June 11, 2018 - Posted by | Biology, Books, Botany, Genetics, Molecular biology

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: